The oldest pick-up line in New York City, “Do you live around here?" has recently been replaced, thanks to the culinary momentum that has swept the country, with “So, who is your favorite chef?” And, often, depending on how one answers, the response is the ticket to date hood and a relationship, or an abrupt “Excuse me, I have to meet someone.”
Once, only Julia and Jacque were the taster’s choice of recipe stardom. But with the influx of celeb into the art of the plate, Emeril, Bobby, Mario, Rachael, and the almost-homemade-queen, Sandra Lee, have emerged from behind the Wolf Range and the Coleman Stove to enter our lives daily and make us think, “Will a well known chef make my life easier and put my restaurant on the map?”
Of course a chef with a name will help bring notoriety to our restaurants. But, a name is only as popular as the preparation and presentation of the food the known-one orchestrates. Great chefs work their butts off, pushing the culinary envelope, creating artwork, whether abstract or understandable, using the plate as their palette long before they become conversation starters.
One of the most difficult and perplexing questions owners contemplate, daily, is how to hire a chef when a restaurant is in need of a strong culinary artist in the kitchen. Is the name stitched on the outside of the chef’s coat that important? Or, is it what’s inside the coat that tantalizes taste buds and makes people take notice?
The first noticeable quality of a chef with celebrity potential is that they have no ego. Celebrity is seldom the first thought that comes to mind when a culinarian begins their journey. Real chefs, true chefs with top name billing potential possess a passion for food and creativity, but also realize the importance of building a strong creative team of kitchenarians that can make the process of flavorful style seem effortless.
When interviewing candidates for a chef’s position is aware of when the comfort level begins to kick in during the interview. Don’t think of your potential chef as an employee. This person will become a partner in your business. They have control, or at least eventually should, of the ordering, product quality, portion size, waste, and the restaurant´s reputation. The biggest mistake owner’s make is looking at the chef as just another employee rather than a partner.
If the chef has not had much experience, but has a desire to learn and work hard and create, develop a plan that will help the chef climb the ladder of success and while doing, they will train others in the kitchen.
Strongly consider hiring a female chef to lead your kitchen. Having worked with numerous culinary leaders, I can attest to the fact that there are three types of chefs. 1) Those who yell. 2) Those who whisper. 3) Women. Now, I am not saying that yellers and whisperers are bad and that women are better. I am, however, saying that women in a lead role in a kitchen develop a different atmosphere than male chefs. And, often, they lead with a different mentality. I have never fired a woman chef who was qualified. I have fired men chefs who pretended to be qualified.
Make sure the words Chef So-and-So on an Egyptian Cotton Chef’s Coat don’t translate into Prima Donna. There is no room for egos in the kitchen. Being proud of food one creates is a quality. Being conceited about it a detriment.
Once, in an interview, I asked a chef what he did best. He explained that his homemade ketchup was his most impressive culinary feat. I promptly looked down at his resume, realized his last name wasn’t Heinz, and explained that unless he had a million or so acres of tomatoes and a massive quantity of bottles and labels, his journey on the trail of ketchup could be a bit rocky. He insisted that his ketchup would make him famous. I quickly directed him to In and Out Burgers. Periodically, I check the In and Out menu to see if he has made any in-roads with the company. To date, they have not changed their Ketchup. The non-Heinz ketchup guy must still be in the test kitchen honey his skills.
Be careful of this culinary specie. Many chefs want to use your restaurant as their own test kitchen while you supply the ingredients for experimentation. This is a problem. But, we all must realize that chefs are artists, and need the freedom to create. And, if we are going to compete in the culinary field, which is expanding with every new restaurateurs concept, a chef must have some artistic freedom.
Let them design the specials on the menu from start to finish. Create the recipe, the name, and the menu, price it out, and analyze the popularity of the dish. Guide a new chef to celebrity status. Once they have proven their ability, and loyalty, feature them in ads, articles, and press releases that your restaurant sends out monthly. Send the chef to special events. You can create chef celebrity without spending a fortune or having the cameras constantly rolling in the kitchen. We all must remember, before chefs create celebrity, they create popular food that people enjoy, look forward to, and talk about.
A top name chef is as important as a great location. But unlike real estate, you can help turn your chef into a household name, if only in the homes of your customers. And that is one of the things you look for as soon as you enter that comfort zone in the interview. Because while the chef is creating great dishes, owners should give them the notoriety they deserve and often look for.